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Explorations in Wheat -- To Produce an Artisan Loaf

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Explorations in Wheat -- To Produce an Artisan Loaf

Dennison | Feb 6, 2004 01:10 PM

In my never-ending quest to fully connect with and understand the food that nourishes and ultimately becomes me, I’ve recently embarked on a bit of a homesteading effort here in Northern Manhattan. Once again, I’ve spent a goodly chunk of my tax return on various kitchen items. This time, it’s a grain mill (the manual Family Grain Mill), a bread machine (the Zojirushi V20) and a Hearth Kit (to turn my kitchen oven into the equivalent of a brick one). What I’ve found is that bread is good. Really good.

As a kid raised on rice, I never really understood the “staff of life” concept – probably had to do with the fact that the only bread in the house was Wonder. I looked forward to the trading cards in the plastic bag far more than I did the bread. As an adult, I discovered artisan breads, like Dan Leader’s (Bread Alone), and started to understand. But being the way I am, I needed to make it myself. So I ventured to make the occasional loaf, only to be sorely disappointed in one way or another. I always thought it was my abysmal lack of breadmaking skills that failed to produce loaves that someone could actually live on. Well, it turns out that with the proper ingredients, a bit of knowledge and the right tools, not only is it possible, but it can actually be done on a daily basis.

I get organic wheat berries shipped direct from a Montana family farm by Alvin and Dorothy Rustebakke (http://www.greatgrainsmilling.com), then grind them fresh for every loaf. This is absolutely vital from both a health and flavor standpoint -- there’s a night and day difference between freshly milled whole meal and any store-bought flour. One is alive and full of the essence of life, the other is denatured to the point that even bacteria don’t recognize it as a valid food. (General rule number one: if it doesn’t rot, it’s not worth eating.) Volatile oils in freshly ground wheat cause rancidity within days, so commercial flour producers strip it out. Health food stores then package and sell wheat germ oil separately as a cure for what ails you. (General rule number two: if any corporation makes significant money from it, it’s not worth eating.) Anyway, I figure the best way to get the vital nutrients I need is straight from the source -- why pay for B-vitamin supplements when I can get them from freshly milled wheat instead?

Next step is the grinding: takes about 10 minutes of hand cranking per loaf. Yes, they make electric models, but a bit of focused exercise every day has become moving meditation to look forward to. That way, you get the incomparable pleasure of inhaling the fresh wheat (or rye or whatever) aroma at the moment it’s ground. I want to just start eating it by the handful, which you’d never say about a bag of supermarket flour. The mill is easy to use and will last a lifetime. It’s beautiful in the way good tools are – you can fully disassemble it for cleaning, then put it back together with your eyes closed since everything only fits together one way. (General rule number three: Occam’s Razor still applies, simple is always better.)

We then come to the bread machine. I never thought I’d get one, but since I work all day it’s a vital piece of equipment. I think bread baked in it is vile (temperature restrictions can’t produce anything remotely resembling a proper crust), but as a kneading and proofing machine, it’s unparalleled. I load ingredients before I leave for work in the morning, set the delay, then come home to beautiful dough ready for shaping and the final rise.

Which brings us to the final luxury item to rave about, the Hearth Kit (http://www.hearthkitchen.com). I’ve always wanted a brick oven, but figured that I’d never have one in a rental apartment. Well, this is the answer – and it works exactly as advertised. Regular ovens have wildly fluctuating temperatures, inherent in the nature of the way they regulate the temperature. Pizza stones and baking tiles help hold temperatures steady, but this hearth kit contraption is definitely the way to go (major kudos to the brilliant folks in Connecticut who came up with the design). Loaves get baked directly on it, so I can finally produce the bread of my dreams.

So that’s it – I’ve actually been able to start baking artisan loaves on a daily basis, for less than a buck a loaf (not counting the initial $400 invested in the toys). It’s a shame to have to spend so much money on the proper tools for the job, but a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do. Anyone else out there making whole grain loaves?

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